She Actually Believes in Haircuts
80 · 8 August 96
Sleeper: The It Girl
I hoard books that I'm dying to read. I hoard other sorts of books, too, actually. I read like a man trying to thrash his way out of quicksand, each convulsive lunge leaving him further under. It used to be that I would buy a few books, read them, and then go back for more. This is a very sensible program. Adherents to it do risk being stranded in airports with no new book to start, but that's what they sell Jurassic Park in the gift shop for. A some point in the last few years, though, for the first time in my life (and either this is a token of my arrival in a semblance of adulthood, or else that very thought proves itself premature), I discovered that I could afford to buy hardcovers. I now understand that this seemingly straightforward format shift was the beginning of a dangerous trend, in my life with books, that may take me years to arrest. For as soon as I began buying hardcovers, I started to buy books that I knew I wasn't ready to read, on the grounds that I didn't want to have to settle for the paperback just because I didn't get around to the book before it switched media. My buying thus became disconnected from my reading, which eliminated the most important check on my buying, and so by now I find myself laboring under the psychological weight of an unread backlog that at my usual pace will occupy me for most of a year, even in the absurd event that I don't buy anything more during that period.
Because this mass of unread books is so daunting, I withhold particular treats from myself as rewards for progress. One of the ones I've been holding the longest is Lovelock, the first book of a new series by Orson Scott Card and Kathryn H. Kidd. Card is my favorite writer in the world, and my inclination, upon arriving home from the book store with a new book of his, is to drop everything else I'm carrying near the door, open the book, and read until I finish it, foregoing food, sleep, locking the door behind me, leaving the building in case of fire, or anything else extraneous. I've learned through painful experience, though, that subsequent books in Card's sequences can take some time to appear, so I'm experimenting with a stricture against beginning any series he is involved in until all the books in it are waiting on my shelf. As proper as I think this course of action is, though, there the book sits, glaring at me from its neglected repose, begging me to succumb. And so, when both Children of the Mind, the long-awaited conclusion to Card's four-book Ender saga, and Treasure Box, his second "mainstream" novel, appeared recently, months of pent-up desire elbowed aside everything else I had queued up to read, and I began.
I mention all this in the context of Sleeper, because as I read Children of the Mind with The It Girl playing in the background, I realized that Card and Sleeper appeal to me for very similar reasons. Although there are a number of remarkable things about Card's writing, the quality that all of it is infused with, to me, even his Mormon religious writing and his books about the writing process itself, is his desperate urgency to pursue Truth. As the young Tagiri, in Pastwatch, follows lives backward through time, tracing the paths that trail from effects back to their causes, so Card writes, backwards through the forest of human instinct and belief, from held convictions to the Truths that underlie them. Much has been made of Card's Mormonism, especially since several of his books revolve around LDS legends and motifs (several plot twists in Alvin Journeyman are close retellings of the story of Mormon prophet Joseph Smith, and the Homecoming series is based, in a general sense, on parts of The Book of Mormon, not to mention the post-apocalyptic Utah of Folk of the Fringe, the explicitly Mormon (and very Card-like) family in Lost Boys and his early-Mormon historical novel, Saints), but I find his work compelling because it is an investigation of the moral bases for his religion's values, not an explication of its tenets. By couching The Tales of Alvin Maker as fantasy, for example, Card is able to reach an audience that would be unreceptive to the same story told as religion, and so he is able to touch people with the intrinsic merits of the tale without risking their rejecting it for external reasons, using a narrative that has powerful personal resonance for him to expose, for an unconverted audience, mechanics of the interactions between people, and internal properties of souls.
Louise Wener's band Sleeper has nothing to do with Mormonism, and its canon is an order of magnitude or two less sweepingly ambitious than Card's, but at the root of the band's arrangements and Wener's lyrics is an inquisitive hopefulness that links them to Card in my mind as travelers along the same road. They care about the sad characters in their songs. Implicit in the disorientation and disillusionment of Wener's frayed domestic scenes is the idea that these people's predicaments are worth our attention and our empathy, that something important and universal can be found in the autopsy of a relationship or an expired spirit, or in a detail as small the silence between two tired lovers across a breakfast table. To both Card and Wener, the world begins with the connections between people, and so the only cosmology worthy of study is personal, and the only physics of meaning is derived from the way each soul curves the space that others pass through. The It Girl is as different from Elastica or Garbage as Ender's Game is from Independence Day, Lost Boys from The Shining, Hart's Hope from Thieves' World. There are moments on The It Girl that speak the dialect of edgy female-fronted Lollapalooza Anglo-punk as unmistakably as Justine Frischmann or Shirley Manson's bands, but where it seems to me that for Elastica and Garbage it is the only language they know, for Sleeper it sounds like a second tongue that, while they speak it fluently, does not constrain their thinking within the bounds of what can be expressed in slang. Where these songs indulge in a sampled barb or a retro drum-machine flourish, they labor under no delusion that those elements are sufficient structure on which to hang a song. This album is a product of its age, but not, I think, a prisoner of it. Though admittedly this is another of those proclamations that, by the time it can be tested, we'll both have forgotten about long ago.
For reason that nobody has briefed me on, the UK and US versions of this album have a different running order, and the US version omits one of the original's songs. I doubt I'll be able to resist owning both indefinitely, just to know what "Glue Ears" ("Glue Legs"? whatever) sounds like, but for the moment I've exerted enough fiscal self-control to only buy a US copy. On this continent, then, the album opens with the half itchy stray-cat strut, half Beatlesque psychedelia of "Feeling Peaky". The woman in this song, mired in corporate routine from which only romance offers a meaningful escape, could easily have been the fiancee of Paul Weller's Smithers-Jones, before the man's mindless career ate his heart and with it his capacity for joy, but where the Jam's bitterness and scorn are manifest in "Smithers-Jones"' retributive ending, "Feeling Peaky"'s bleakness is only provisional, and its protagonist has not yet let the emptiness of her weekdays completely extinguish her spark of purpose. This narrative style is really too detached for Wener, though, and by "Sale of the Century" (whose boingy bass line might be a fugitive from "Nights on Broadway") she has switched into one of her two native modes, this one being the atrophied-relationship diagnosis from the point of view of one of the participants, and the other being the outsider's perspective on about the same thing. The difference between Wener and Frischmann or Alanis Morissette is manifest here in the way she declines to turn the song's tag line ("You said I was cheap; you were the sale of the century") into an epic metaphor. The twist in language is a lyrical hook, but not the song's animating rationale. In fact, far from being a vindictive put down, the song is actually a surprisingly subtle portrait of a relationship straining to transcend itself, the participants struggling between the reflexive refusal to lower their carefully cultivated defenses and the impossibility of making any emotional headway without doing so. "It feels just like we've just got started", Wener sings, and the thrill of the new is obliterated by the unattainability of the familiar (like, for those of us who have adopted My So-Called Life as moral mythology, when Hallie tells Graham, exasperatedly, that she can never make any damn headway with him). If you're looking for essay topics to practice on, you could try, in this context, explaining why the narrator suggests taking a photograph and then burning its negative. "Dress Like Your Mother" is the other sort of Wener song, a proper-name-less he/she still-life, and while her portraits tend to be more detailed on the female side of the canvas, she doesn't let this bias her judgment, and when she concludes, here, "You don't look yourself, / You dress like your mother", it sounds like she's talking to both of them. "Fifty years to go", runs the chorus, "And it seems to me that you're all dead already", which immediately makes me think of Too Much Joy's "William Holden Caulfield", whose "I don't wanna grow up, 'cause I don't wanna die / When I'm thirty-one, / Then keep living on / For fifty more years" is the same sentiment in inverted narration (an instructive inversion given Sleeper's preternatural maturity and TMJ's Peter Pan complex, though linking the two on musical grounds is perverse and probably not very helpful).
"Statuesque", which I think I heard in the background of Trainspotting, though Sleeper's only appearance on the released soundtrack is their Blondie cover, is one of my favorite of the band's straight ahead rock songs, with handclaps, circling organ and Wener's tentative split-personality harmonies combining for an expansive warmth. "Nice Guy Eddie", by contrast, bristles with jittery hi-hats, triggered snares, guitars so processed they might be keyboards, burbling analog synth noises and a layer of flange over everything, and could easily have been the song that gave somebody the idea to have Sleeper do "Atomic". "Stop Your Crying" could be a lost Pretenders/Jam collaboration. "Lie Detector" could be used as an organ donor if Elastica's next album need a throttled-guitar transplant. And "What Do I Do Now?", the album's advance single, which came out long enough ago that I had it tied for second on my 1995 best-song list, whirls past in the throes of undulating synthesizers and a hauntingly pained vocal coda.
At that point, for me, a stylistic shift occurs, and I can't help wondering whether the US track order was devised to create this shift, or reveal it. The muted and graceful "Shrinkwrapped" sounds like a band experiment conceived after an afternoon of listening to "Where the Streets Have No Name" and the Jesus and Mary Chain in alternation. "Good Luck Mr Gorsky" is acoustic, too, but even more subdued, like the Smiths without so much reverb. These two songs are an odd epilogue to the first eight, but they cohere as a pair, and if the record stopped here I'd just shrug it off as eccentric pacing. The last two, though, feel wholly out of place to me, and threaten to pull 9 and 10 along into limbo. The vaguely Psychedelic Furs-ish "Factor 41" suddenly reminds me that Sleeper's first album mixed Wener's compassionate observations with several interludes of unapologetic lust. Here, silhouetted against more complex and rewarding material, I find this much less endearing, and nothing musical about the song captivates me enough to justify the cheap one-joke lyrics. And "Click...Off...Gone" feels totally lifeless to me, and I can't help suspecting that its survival onto the album is due solely to somebody having said "Hey, that title would make a great last-song". I'm not going to let two songs undermine my heartfelt devotion to this album as a whole, but if I tape this for the car, I'm stopping the transfer after ten, and filling out the rest of the cassette with b-sides.
Fleming & John: Delusions of Grandeur
Fleming & John are products of just about every current stylistic cliche that Sleeper defies. I actually didn't even buy this record, I picked it out of a box of random promos that a radio-station rep was handing around at a free acoustic show his station sponsored. The band who was playing at that show was Marry Me Jane. I reviewed their debut album, which also served as the soundtrack to If Lucy Fell, a while ago. In discussing it then, I remarked in passing that lead singer Amanda Kravat looked like a very attractive woman. Now, I didn't mean much by that. I respond to feminine beauty in socially and biologically predictable ways, but I'm a hopeless intellectual elitist, so I don't consciously assign much significance to it. In If Lucy Fell I found Sarah Jessica Parker's character much more appealing than Elle MacPherson's, and in The Truth About Cats and Dogs I was much more attracted to Janeane Garofalo than to Uma Thurman, though the fact that Sarah Jessica Parker and Janeane Garofalo are Hollywood's idea of "the ugly one" says more about Hollywood's sexism than my discerning judgment.
At any rate, I arrived a few minutes early for this show, and there was no opening act, so I was slouching against a wall, reading a book, waiting for Marry Me Jane to come in. Just as I was starting to get engrossed by the story (actually, the book was British English A to Zed, a lexicon that doesn't have a story in the usual sense, but which gets engrossing all the same), a motion in my peripheral vision caused me to look up, and there was Amanda, standing in front of me, about three feet away, reading something off the wall over my shoulder. I have never seen a more beautiful woman in my entire life. I felt for a moment like I'd been electrocuted or shot or something. For all I know, my jaw literally dropped open; I wasn't exercising enough voluntary control over my musculature at that point to really be sure. This is not particularly well-developed cognitive theory, but I assume that there's some biological component to what we find attractive, in addition to the layers of social construct that have been troweled over it by years of Baywatch and jeans commercials, and however it is that I'm wired, I believe I now know what a woman reversed-engineered out of my particular physical-attractiveness synapse patterns would look exactly like. There is no one "It" girl, or boy, there's a different one for each of us (with some sharing, presumably), and I don't know who yours is, but I found mine. She smokes, she lives in a different city, and I have no idea whether I'd want to finish a conversation with her, but I've seen her, and I've sat in a tiny room with her for an hour, watching the way her silk shirt falls off her shoulder when she plays guitar, and that's probably enough. I got home from the encounter in a euphoric daze, and rushed to put this CD on, still in the throes of illogic that connected it to Amanda, though it would take the Oracle of Bacon to actually link them (Ben Folds plays drums on this album, but I can't figure out where to go from there).
Fleming & John are singer Fleming McWilliams, guitarist John Mark Painter and, for the purposes of this album at least, bassist Stan Rawls and drummer Shawn McWilliams. A little Web trawling revealed that they have some roots in the Contemporary Christian Music subculture, and they appear to be from Nashville, but neither of those things are at all in evidence on this album. Fleming's voice is waifish at its quiet extreme, but at the other end of her range she can wail like a demented banshee, slipping into and out of a thin, operatic falsetto without warning. Painter's guitars go from preposterously overdriven, the aural equivalent of the muscles on cartoon superheroes, to understated and nearly invisible. The rhythm section can handle lounge shuffle and funk-metal delirium. Where the low-key parts of these ranges line up, this album sounds to me more like Lisa Loeb's than anything else, pleasant but in need of something distinctive to achieve much beyond that. When they slam into their highest gear, though, as on the first three tracks, the last one, and the choruses of a couple in between, they sound like an alloy formed by melting down Eve's Plum, the Rose Chronicles and For Love Not Lisa, and this manic and erratic synthesis is pretty singular. "I'm Not Afraid" sounds a little like an unaccented Björk fronting Rage Against the Machine, "Break the Circles" sounds like one of Sheila Chandra's American cousins rehearsing with Soundgarden, "Delusions of Grandeur" might be a fitting soundtrack for Quay Brothers films shown to non-English-speaking audiences, and the crunching "A Place Called Love", with its hop-step martial gait and crazed mock-sitar riffs, I expect to hear over the trailer for Ridley Scott's remake of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. I'm not sure if they can keep that intensity up for a whole album without having to be committed before they finish it, but I hope on their next one they try to.
Here, on the other hand, is a band that can keep up its chosen facade for a whole album. A Boston studio assemblage, I know them from local compilation appearances, "Emily Says" from 1994's Girl, and "'Til My Head Explodes" from 1995's Castle Von Buhler AIDS benefit Anon, both of which are included here. Chainsuck's style is easily described: the music is churning, sample-heavy, massively-gated-drum-loop-propelled goth-dance-industrial, a little Stabbing Westward-ward of Garbage but still cleaving firmly to the accessible end of the spectrum, safely away from ominously genuine Nine Inch Nails menace, frightening KMFDM Germanicisms or Ministry mock-metal, much less anything approaching real noise or using "industrial" without the disclamatory quotation marks. Over this surging instrumental bed, vocalist Marydee Reynolds sings in a desperately frail warble that wouldn't sound out of place doing Muzak remakes of Judy Collins ballads or singing the frothy theme song to a mid-Seventies James Bond knock-off while standing in a perfectly white room wearing a fluffy upper-thigh-length coat, clear plastic shoes and pastel lip gloss (an image that is harder to hold onto after you've seen that in concert Reynolds plays guitar viciously and looks more like a cross between Susan Sarandon and Iggy Pop). A part of me thinks, as I did the first time I heard the Smoking Popes, that Chainsuck arrived at their style by methodically working through possible combinations of disparate aesthetics until they came upon a pairing that nobody appeared to have used yet ("Let's see, nobody's done 'Tom Jones fronting a Chilean pan-flute troupe', 'Chipmunk trip-hop', 'Country-Western Death Metal' or 'Ambient Polka'; anybody got a preference, or should we just let the label decide?"), but they keep it up for ten songs, and they manage to make the two styles work together, rather than just sharing time signatures, and I happen, personally, to like this particular arranged marriage. You can make up your own mind.